Scope of banking inquiry is widened

DON CRUICKSHANK, the former director-general of Oftel, yesterday widened the scope of his inquiry into the banking sector and rejected calls from banks to exclude large parts of their business from the review.

Consumer concerns - such as the transparency of banking charges - will now be included in Mr Cruickshank's inquiry, initiated last November by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Mr Cruickshank, who yesterday released a progress report, said he also intended to study the impact of electronic money on banking competition.

Mr Cruickshank said: "The rapidly expanding use of e-money offers a great opportunity for increasing competition, particularly in money transmission services. It would be a pity if this opportunity were lost."

The former Oftel leader - asked to look into the sector after the Office of Fair Trading told the Treasury there was insufficient evidence of anti- competitive behaviour to merit a competition inquiry - said he had rejected calls to exclude business banking from the probe.

Responses to January's consultation document revealed that neither banks nor most of their customers believed there were problems in the supply of credit to small and medium enterprises (SMEs). However, Mr Cruickshank said he remained unconvinced that the issue of SME credit was problem- free. He said previous experience had taught him that customers in markets "where there may be no real choice" may find it hard to tell whether or not they receive good service.

So-called "merchant acquiring" - credit and debit-card acceptance in retail outlets - will be a key part of Mr Cruickshank's inquiry, as will a detailed study of banking profitability. "You can't come to a competition conclusion without understanding prices and profitability," Mr Cruickshank said.

The inquiry is at the "data collection phase", and Mr Cruickshank said he hoped to begin forming preliminary conclusions in the autumn before publishing the report in the winter.

Outlook, above

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